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Born to the Purple

-%20%20%20_7156330.jpgNext up in our Yukon wildflower tour is a dark lavender or blue-purple flower that’s blooming right now—the mountain larkspur if you’re Canadian, or sierra larkspur if you’re American, or delphinium glaucum if you want to show off your Latin. And those who know Latin might also  know that the name delphinium comes from the resemblance each flower has to a little leaping and swimming purple dolphin.

This particular type of larkspur (and there are many types of wild larkspur) is native in western North America from Alaska down through California and eastward as far as Alberta.  Yes, they dwell in the Rocky Mountains, and hence, you see, their common name.
Mountain larkspur is also found in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, but there it is an introduced species, not an  not  indigenous one. And it’s a pity that some traveler carried it to the prairies, because this plant does a nasty number on cattle who eat too much of it. Unfortunately, in the spring on the grasslands, larkspur reaches grazing height before the surrounding natural grasses and a few cattle will be lost due to larkspur poisoning. This wildflower is toxic to other animals, like horses and sheep, but for reasons not well-understood, it is not as deadly for them as it is for cattle.

It’s because of it’s pernicious effect on grazing cattle that delphinium glaucum has been declared a prohibited noxious weed in both the U.S. and Canada. That means no one can import the seeds, although I’m not sure what the seed import ban accomplishes, since these are native plants in both countries. But if you are crossing the border, you’ll want to check your pockets for any stray delphinium seeds, just in case. You wouldn’t want to be charged with smuggling a prohibited weed, would you?

So are mountain larkspur good for anything besides looking tall and stately and deep purple? As you might imagine, that noxious label limits their use as food or medicine, but their flower juice can be mixed with alum to make  a pretty blue ink. I’m not sure ink in delphinium blue is indelible, but it’d certainly be inedible.
The photo directly above is of another Yukon wildflower, one that, along with the mountain larkspur, is from the buttercup or crowfoot family. There’s a close family resemblance, isn’t there? The best way to tell these two flowers apart is by the fifth petal on this second one. See how it forms a hood over the bottom four petals? That mini head covering is what gives  this bloom one of its common names—monkshood.
In Latin, it’s aconitum dephinifolium. Better yet is another of it’s common names—wolfbane—given because the juice from this flower has been used for poisoning wolves. Like it’s larkspur cousin, monkshood is highly toxic. There’s a poem by  John Keats called Ode on Melancholy that has this line:
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist Wolf’s bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine….
That’s good advice. Three years ago, there was a young Canadian actor who died after he ate monkshood sap. He was a vegetarian known for his love of nature, but evidently not so much for his knowledge of it.
Where I grew up, every child learned this dittified warning, which saved me a few rounds of cortisone pills:
Leaves of three, 
Let them be! 
As a public service, I’m composing another little verse for those who live in monkshood territory.
Petals five and one’s a hood?
You must leave it in the wood!
It’s not exactly Keats, is it?

Previous wildflower posts: 

 Both photos are by Andrew Stark. You can click for a better view of the little leaping dolphins or stylish purple hoods.

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Reader Comments (2)

We call it Mountain Larkspur in Colorado, too. Never heard it called Sierra Larkspur. I looked it up at and found out there are 105 different kinds of larkspur listed there. Next time I'm home during the summer, I'll have to take a closer look at what grows in my parents yard, high up in the Rocky Mountains, and try to figure out which kind it is! Guess it just just goes to show that I am not a biologist! I thought a larkspur was a larkspur was a larkspur. :) Thanks for sharing the photos.

July 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterColumbine

We call it Mountain Larkspur in Colorado, too. Never heard it called Sierra Larkspur.

That's interesting. I've never heard it called anything but just plain larkspur. I got that factoid about what Americans call it from some source or other. Perhaps it wasn't all that accurate!

July 15, 2008 | Registered Commenterrebecca

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